THE ACCC is investigating accusations Google is using as much as $580 million worth of Australians’ phone plan data annually to secretly track their movements.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said he was briefed recently by US experts who had intercepted, copied and decrypted messages sent back to Google from mobiles running on the company’s Android operating system.
The experts, from computer and software corporation Oracle, claim Google is draining roughly one gigabyte of mobile data monthly from Android phone users’ accounts as it snoops in the background, collecting information to help advertisers.
A gig of data currently costs about $3.60-$4.50 a month. Given more than 10 million Aussies have an Android phone, if Google had to pay for the data it is said to be siphoning, it would face a bill of between $445 million and $580 million a year.
Google’s privacy consent discloses that it tracks location “when you search for a restaurant on Google Maps”. But it does not appear to mention the constant monitoring going on in the background even when Maps is not in use.
The Oracle experts say phone owners’ data ends up being consumed even if Google Maps is not in use or aeroplane mode is switched on. Nor will removing the SIM card stop it from happening. Only turning off a phone prevents monitoring, it says.
The information fed back to Google includes barometric pressure readings so it can work out, for example, which level of a shopping mall you are on. By combining this with your coordinates Google knows which shops you have visited.
It can then report to advertisers how often online ads have led to store visits, according to Oracle.
He said the presentation by the visiting experts was “extremely interesting” and “valuable input” into the digital platforms inquiry, which is examining the impact of Google, Facebook and other tech giants.
“The more we get into this inquiry the more we realise there are lots of issues (around) competition and privacy,” he said.
That Oracle had come to Australia to do the presentation showed the value of the ACCC inquiry, he said.
“Oracle are here because we are doing the market inquiry,” Mr Sims said.
While in Australia the Oracle experts have also shown their findings to some journalists.
A Google spokesman declined to answer specific questions but did say users can see what data is collected and how it’s used in “My Account, and control it”. He said location sharing was opt in. He said Oracle’s presentation was “sleight of hand”.
Google and Oracle have been in a major patent dispute since 2012 over the use of code from Oracle’s Java system in Android.